Medical Mission Moments and Mementos

U.S. student volunteers reflect on the meaningful trinkets they brought home to remind them of their new friends.

By Lilly Deljoo, Student Programs Media Intern

Operation Smile medical missions are such heart-warming experiences that it’s hard to leave without having a heartfelt moment with a new friend you’ve made along the way.

Our #osstudpro student volunteers share some of the precious momentos they brought home to remind them of their friends. 

Connection goes beyond words: For student volunteer Julia Cucci, stickers don’t just belong in notebooks — they’re much more meaningful.

Julia remembers thinking to herself, “How am I going to do this?” as the young patient across from her was nervous and upset, refusing to go in for her surgery. “She couldn’t speak and communicate well,” Julia recalled, “… so it was really hard to get her to go into the operating room.” 

Julia did not let this challenge get her down. She started by pointing to buildings through the window to distract her friend, who became interested in the sticker on Julia’s hand.

Julia brought many stickers to the mission, so she starting giving stickers to the patient. Soon stickers were all the way up her arms and her body.

“She was laughing and smiling and it calmed her down so much” that Julia thought, “Wow how did I just do that?”

Julia was moved — she had connected so much with this little one, and they couldn’t even speak with one another. It wasn’t long before Julia was holding her hand as they walked together into the operating room.

Something to remind her of the girls: Although months have gone by since her medical mission with Operation Smile, Sammy still has a part of the experience she was able to bring home to the U.S.

During the mission in Durgapur, India, Sammy recalled visiting a school for low-income girls from first to fifth grade. 

“It was just a really cool experience … to see girls’ education in a different country because I go to an all girls school,” Sammy said. “… It was a similar mission but in a completely different part of the world.”

At the school, the girls are taught a trade in case they can’t continue their education, and they made a beautiful picture frame as a gift for Sammy. She gladly accepted the picture frame, brought it home and added a picture of her, her mission partner and the girls “to always remember that part of the trip.”

Friends go through a lot together: A failed plan, hours wasted, but a special memory gained in the process.

When student volunteer Matthew Deckerman was traveling to an orphanage on this mission in Vijayawada, India, he found out that his group “went to the wrong orphanage due to a communication error.” They were driving “two hours in the wrong direction and … had to go back and when (they)  finally got there it was like 8 o’clock” at night. He recalled how bad he and his student team felt when they saw “all the children were sitting outside waiting for (them).”

Matt did everything he could to make it the best experience possible for the kids. They played a lot, and he and his mission partner presented their health care modules. Through this experience, Matt said he really got to know the translator on their team, and they became friends.

On the last day, of the medical mission, she walked up to Matt and the rest of the student team to hand them each a gift. The translator gave him a handcrafted pencil cup, and “she said thanks for being a great sport about (the experience) and she really enjoyed having us,” Matt said.

“It’s just a nice memorabilia of (that afternoon trip).” 

Putting a gift to use: Student volunteer Whitney Clarfield remembers her mission in Antananarivo, Madagascar, by the bamboo straws gifted to her by a nurse at their final party.

“I use them daily,” Whitney told us. “Whenever I use them, I just think back to my awesome team.”

Made special for her: In June 2019, during her mission in Zomba, Malawi, student volunteer Karilyn Kruklitis hiked up a mountain with a local guide one morning. The hike finished at the guide’s shop, where he made personalized keychains for Karilyn and her brother.

“He was a really nice man and was super thankful for the whole mission team,” Karilyn recalled.

Now, Karilyn uses her keychain to remind her of her mission experience, where she “got to meet so many wonderful people and discover a new culture all while watching (her) team change lives for all (her) new friends.”

Karilyn poses for a picture with her new friend Moreen at the mission site (Photo courtesy of Karilyn Kruklitis). 

A friendship continuing to grow: Student volunteer Monica Alfaro frequently attends missions in her home country of Honduras. At the missions in Tegucigalpa, Monica befriended a patient named Brianna, whom she keeps in close contact with. Brianna’s mother gave Monica a special keepsake for her to take back home: her grandmother’s earrings.

Monica may be seeing Brianna again soon: “We FaceTime all the time through her mom’s phone, and she’s due back for the next mission,” Monica said.

Lilly studies at the University of California Los Angeles and got her start with Operation Smile in high school. She attended a medical mission in Lu’an, Anhui, China in April 2019.